Once you tug at the loose ends of the Rachel Noerdlinger story, the whole administration of New York mayor Bill de Blasio seems to unravel in your hands.
For the last few days, the tabloids have been all over Noerdlinger, 43, chief of staff to de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, because of the disclosure by DNAinfo.com that her live-in boyfriend, Hassaun McFarlan, 36, is a cop-hating criminal. At 15, after A Better Chance—a charity that sends inner-city black kids to good suburban schools—had paid for McFarlan to attend a Connecticut school for two years, he returned to the Harlem housing project where his single mother lived and promptly shot an 18-year-old neighbor to death over a down jacket. Three years after pleading guilty to manslaughter (around the time his drug-dealer father died of AIDS) and serving six years in prison, McFarlan landed in jail again for interstate drug dealing. He pled guilty and got out of prison in Massachusetts in 2007. A series of traffic arrests began in 2009—the year his mother committed suicide—and ended just after de Blasio was elected mayor, when McFarlan, driving girlfriend Noerdlinger’s Mercedes, refused to stop for a cop guiding traffic around an accident but instead sped up so aggressively that the cop had to jump out of his path. Charged with disorderly conduct, he pled guilty this March. Little wonder, as McFarlan wrote on Facebook, that “I cant come outside without the pigs f——— with me in the hood out the hood im a magnet to police f——— with me.” The solution, according to a tee-shirt he wears, is to end the police tactic of stop-and-frisk.
None of this would matter publicly if McFarlan’s girlfriend’s boss, the mayor’s wife, did not play so central a role in New York City governance. But she does. “As I’ve said probably a thousand times,” de Blasio declared of McCray, “she’s my most important adviser and the person I’m closest to in the world—and the person I listen to the most.” That’s not hyperbole—the mayor listed his wife alongside himself on his campaign’s organization chart, and New York Magazine reports that since the inauguration, people describe them as “virtual co-mayors.” “Understand Chirlane and you’ll understand me,” de Blasio once said. “We do everything as a couple—we think as a couple.” McCray has approved and often interviewed all important hires in her husband’s administration, from commissioners and deputy mayors on down, and she has ensured that women and minorities are heavily represented in their ranks. In addition, she runs the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, controlling a $50 million-plus pot of public and private money to set up pilot programs for everything from youth employment to immigrant assistance, as she sees fit.
City Hall insiders, New York reports, describe McCray as resolute when her husband is indecisive, ideological when he is pragmatic. And that marital dynamic makes her all the more powerful. Remember that de Blasio is a man whose background might make him more-than-usually indecisive—even about his own identity, given that he has legally changed his name not once but twice.
He was born Warren Wilhelm, Jr., the son of a war hero who lost a leg below the knee from a Japanese grenade at Okinawa near the end of World War II. The Loomis- and Yale-educated Wilhelm, a business writer for Time before the war, married de Blasio’s Smith-graduate mother, a Time researcher, when the war ended, got a Harvard master’s degree studying the Soviet economy, and went to work as a budget analyst for the federal government. But in 1950, at the height of the McCarthy-era witch hunt and partly instigated by the Wilhelms’ Time colleague, Whittaker Chambers, the FBI began investigating whether the left-leaning Wilhelms were Communists, a suspicion that the bronze-star-decorated Wilhelm rejected indignantly. Investigators found no evidence of disloyalty, but they branded both Wilhelms as having “a sympathetic interest in Communism,” for which de Blasio’s father lost his security clearance and all chance of promotion.
He moved on, though, to a plum job as Texaco’s chief international economist and bought a tree-shaded house in Connecticut, from which he commuted to his Chrysler Building office. In 1961, his third son, the future mayor, was born in now-defunct Doctors Hospital, opposite Gracie Mansion. Soon afterward, the senior Wilhelm joined the prestigious Arthur D. Little consulting firm in Boston. There, nursing his grievance with the government he had served at such high personal cost, he plunged into depression and alcoholism. His wife divorced him in 1969, keeping custody of the children, and ten years later, cancer-riddled and unemployed, Wilhelm put a bullet through his heart. In 1983, Warren Wilhelm, Jr., legally became Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm, adding his mother’s name to his father’s. In 2001, after he won a New York City Council seat, he officially became Bill de Blasio. “I have a real respect, and a real anger and sadness at the same time,” de Blasio told the New York Times, summing up his father’s life and death. “I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do the math on exactly what it all means.”
If de Blasio himself can’t add up this painful history, as one must do to feel inwardly whole, any other attempt to do so must be mere speculation. But it’s not far-fetched to imagine how the government’s treatment of his left-leaning parents—along with his war-hero father’s disintegration and the break-up of his family in the wake of that treatment—would have left the mayor with a powerful, confusing amalgam of identification, pity, shame, resentment, and anger. Certainly the one time I saw de Blasio in action, questioning a City Journal colleague who’d agreed to give expert testimony to the city council, he struck me, with his overbearing voice and his pointing finger at the end of his long, gesticulating arm, as the angriest bully I ever saw.
Into de Blasio’s somewhat aimless life—after college at NYU and graduate school at Columbia, he’d gone to Nicaragua and returned a fervid pro-Sandinista before becoming an aide to Mayor David Dinkins—stepped McCray, a diminutive lesbian who had developed a tough, decisive self-reliance from being the only black student in her Longmeadow, Massachusetts high school class—her parents dismissed her loneliness by saying, “You’re not here to be popular; you’re here to get a good education”—and from her continued feeling that she “didn’t belong,” that she was a perpetual “outsider,” throughout her college years at Wellesley. She had her own identity problems, which she transformed into identity politics, as some post-college friends told New York, making the personal into the political. And of course, as the inevitable accompaniment to identity politics, she gave free rein to her anger. “If I were beautiful, I could be angry and cute, instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch,” she wrote in the late 1970s.
The moment in 1994 that the 6-foot 5-inch de Blasio set eyes on his fellow Dinkins aide, who stood only as high as his shoulder, he heard angels singing, he once said. Though McCray, almost seven years his senior, had gone through a series of relationships with women and, as an editorial assistant at Redbook, had published an attention-grabbing article in Essence called “I Am a Lesbian,” she nevertheless accepted de Blasio’s marriage proposal and went off to honeymoon with him in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. As he moved on to manage Congressman Charles Rangel’s 1994 reelection bid, serve as an official in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, and run Hillary Clinton’s successful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, before winning his own election as a city councilman for three terms and then as Public Advocate in 2010, his new wife moved into the unfamiliar world of motherhood seven months after the wedding. “I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara—will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes,” McCray told New York. “But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her—every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.” Son Dante came along almost three years later. When he started school, McCray went back to full-time work, as a speechwriter for city comptroller Bill Thompson and later as a hospital marketing official.
Early on, the loving, winsome multiracial family became a trademark de Blasio campaign prop. By the time she was four, Chiara was handing out election leaflets. In the mayoral campaign, she mostly appeared wordlessly, though, and it wasn’t until just before her father’s inauguration—on Christmas Eve, when few watch the news—that the campaign released a professionally produced video that explained why (and perhaps explained her mother’s sense of everlasting guilt): the 19-year-old spoke of now being clean and sober, though still “a nervous and depressed wreck,” after a stint in drug and alcohol rehab following her “miserable” adolescence. Son Dante, however, played a decisive role in the campaign, starring in a TV ad that aides of de Blasio’s chief primary opponent think won him the nomination. Sporting an Afro hairdo of a luxuriance not seen since the 1970s, and identified on the screen only as “Dante, 15, Brooklyn,” the boy speaks of de Blasio as “the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years.” How? “He is the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color. Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like, and I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad.” Identity politics doesn’t come much purer than that.
And who would know more about identity politics than Rachel Noerdlinger, longtime flack to race hustler Al Sharpton, the P. T. Barnum of racial grievance? It was he who made police victimization of blacks a national issue—and himself famous—when he tirelessly publicized the 1987 hoax that 15-year-old Tawana Brawley had orchestrated in order to persuade her mother’s live-in boyfriend that the teenager had not voluntarily stayed out all night after visiting her boyfriend in jail. Discovered seemingly unconscious in a plastic garbage bag, smeared with dog waste, her hair shorn and the words “nigger” and “KKK” scrawled in charcoal on her chest, Brawley claimed that a gang of six whites, including a cop and a prosecutor, had raped her and, adding insult to injury, had left her like that. As Brawley’s self-appointed champion, Sharpton turned her into living proof that American blacks lived in constant danger of murderous, hate-fueled violence from white cops, who were all as benightedly racist as Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor, who had turned fire hoses and attack dogs onto peaceful civil rights demonstrators a quarter-century earlier. In 1988, a grand jury, after hearing 180 witnesses—including the doctor who examined her and found no evidence of rape—concluded that Brawley’s tale was false, but many African-Americans of a certain age believed for many years afterward that “Tawana told the truth,” as Brawley herself long maintained and as her mother and stepfather were still claiming two decades later. Meanwhile, the wife of the prosecutor Brawley had accused of rape divorced him in disgust, and the accused cop put a bullet through his brain.
It’s not hard to guess what drew Noerdlinger, 43, to identity-politics panjandrum Sharpton. Adopted after a year in foster care by a white couple with two biological children of their own, plus a daughter from the astrophysicist father’s first marriage, and another adopted black child beside Rachel, she “was this child of color in a family that didn’t look like me,” she told the Daily News. Add to that the fact that the family moved every few years, so the kids couldn’t put down permanent roots, along with the terrible fact that Rachel’s adoptive mother committed suicide (the fourth in this short article) and the oldest child was murdered in Detroit at 33, and you have the makings of a fragile sense of self. Noerdlinger’s response: “I’ve suffered tremendous loss, and as a result, it’s made me able to identify with people who are suffering.”
I see the outline of Noerdlinger’s path in the story of a classmate of one of my children in a New York private school, who had come to the school through a program like A Better Chance. She must have found the strain of coming every morning from her poor black Brooklyn neighborhood and fitting into her prosperous new white surroundings increasingly dissonant, though she did it with aplomb. By the time she got to Wesleyan University, she stopped trying and not only embraced her black identity, but also went in search of an authentic blackness, which she called the “Loud-talking Black Woman”—which meant, one of her professors remembers, “someone who was not afraid to speak her mind, who was prepared to challenge oppression, challenge assumptions about what’s appropriate.” After college, she became a minority recruiter for a big bank and moved in with a young man whom police believed to be a small-time marijuana dealer. Living with him—and here I am only speculating—she at last found her authentic blackness: the victim as outlaw. Shortly after her 26th birthday, police found her and her boyfriend bound up together, a sheet thrown over their heads. She was dead, a bullet through her head. Police guess, but never proved, that drug dealers had come to get either money or drugs the boyfriend owed them, that she spoke her mind and challenged oppression, and paid with her life. The cops never solved the case.
All speculation, I repeat. But I would make the same guess—possibly wrong, I acknowledge—about Noerdlinger and her criminal lover. After so confusing and disturbing a childhood, she embraced her black identity with Sharpton (not, unfortunately, anybody’s model of authenticity) and her authentically black identity with McFarlan, the victimized black man who rebels against his oppression by acts of criminality to which a racist system ineluctably has driven him—a mythology people have embraced for 50 years.
McCray hired Noerdlinger after her husband’s inauguration at a salary of $170,000. Many New Yorkers believe that states and cities don’t have “first ladies,” that the nation’s only First Lady lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many also don’t see why McCray, who fashions herself on social media as #FLONYC, is spending so many of their tax dollars on a chief of staff, when even Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, paid her chief of staff $53,580. Indeed, only 27 percent of New Yorkers told pollsters that they thought a mayor’s wife should have any city policymaking role (perhaps especially so with a mayor who won with the ballots of only 16 percent of registered voters). But, as de Blasio says, McCray is his closest advisor, and Noerdlinger is “a very influential figure in City Hall,” according to one of de Blasio’s closest aides.
Let me conclude with a final tentative speculation. American politics is filled with candidates who seem hollow figures, emptied out by who knows what kind of psychic wounds, which they hope, usually in vain, that voters’ affirmation will somehow heal. And, more specifically, we have constantly before our eyes a president with a more-than-usually confused background, who speaks in books that bear his byline of his quest to forge a coherent identity, and who appears to have filled some of his inner void with his wife’s anger against American racism, which she believes to be as pervasive as it was 50 years ago.
If de Blasio is a politician of this stamp, and if the victimology at the heart of McCray’s and Noerdlinger’s identity politics pervades his worldview, that bodes ill for New Yorkers, no matter where they live or what they look like. Perhaps the greatest U.S. domestic-policy success of the last two decades has been New York’s astonishing crime drop, from one murder every four hours in 1991 to fewer than one per day last year. And of course, the neighborhoods with the greatest crime drop—neighborhoods where civic life itself had died because of the constant violence—were poor minority neighborhoods, unpoliced until then and controlled by thugs. Most of the murder victims, then as now, were young black men, as were most of the murderers—an outrage that Sharpton has never seen fit to protest. Smart policing, including stop-and-frisk, accomplished that urban revolution. If, in thrall to an outworn ideology that real-life experience has thunderously disproved, de Blasio, McCray, Noerdlinger, and their colleagues manage to reverse that accomplishment, what a waste, what a pity, what a failure that would be.